For many years I worked for a company that had a very forward thinking culture.
The company focused on the experience of each customer both externally (the actual paying customer) and internally (the paid employee trained to promote the brand). They developed many systems that supported proper communication of the team, and they often used these same systems to draw parallels between the employee’s and the customer’s experience one in the same.
One of the most important virtues, a phrase that was recited almost everyday, repeated often and used to justify so many of our decisions and actions, was the concept of “Assume Positive Intent”.
I would guess that most in the business world have likely heard this phrase and worked to implement it into their culture. But for me, this was the first time in my life I had really heard the phrase or thought about it conceptually, and what I learned regarding its use truly changed my life.
Assume Positive Intent
No matter what the question may be from a colleague or a customer (or a friend), assume that person always means well, and has positive intent behind what is said. Assume that your co-workers are making decisions regarding their actions with the best intentions, and assume that they are doing the best that they can.
From The Collaborative Way:
KEY ACTION: Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume that they had positive intentions, identify the situational details, and get the bigger picture.
When we Assume Negative Intent
We’ve been conditioned to be suspicious, to think that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. If a person offers advice, we might dissect it to figure out what their “real” agenda is. And if someone disagrees with us or calls out an area where we might need improvement, we may become defensive because we feel threatened or criticized on both a professional and personal level.
For me its a very tough road to follow when I’m suspicious of everyone around me. When I’m approached by friends or bandmates with feedback regarding my musical performances, how depressing is my life when I think “they’re just out to hurt me or take advantage of me, they don’t really care about what I’m going through.”
How likely am I to work harder, communicate more, or trust my organization to make the right choices?
So we CHOOSE to think and feel differently
If we want a different outcome, if we want to feel more positive about our business, or if we want to thrive as we move forward together, we have to choose to think differently and act on those choices.
Its very possible that the person in your world asking you a question, or making a decision in your organization, does NOT have good intentions. They could be completely gaming the system, and they are counting on you being as gullible as possible when it comes to those conversations. Their reality is vastly different from yours and deep down inside they are angry and manipulative, and sometimes they want to see how far they can push you before you crack.
This can’t be any of your concern. You have to choose to welcome everyone in, and mostly likely, your honesty, your candidness, and your kindness could some day inspire them to change. And for me, this becomes all very worth the effort in the end. To save a life, to inspire, and to work together for the greater good has to be what we are all here for. Assuming positive intent either brings you together, or eventually weeds out those that aren’t supposed to be there.
Here are 3 benefits that I’ve experienced from assuming positive intent:
1) Better Communication / Relationships
When I assume positive intent of my customers, my family, and my friends, I tend to discover more of the reasoning behind their actions and their choices. I become more open to learning their history. I’m curious of the experience they’ve had to get to this point, and I’m intrigued regarding their path.
In turn, the person I’ve assumed positive intent for, will tend to feel more open, more connected to our interactions. My hope is that they are receiving the inspiration from me to develop confidence in their choices. Or at least they develop confidence to trust in me for advice and leadership.
As those conversations become more frequent, a bond of trust is developed, and then in-turn, friendships, mentors, and business partnerships are formed, and on that personal level at home, marriages are better, and relationships with children are more nurturing.
2) Opportunity Knocks
Somewhat of an extension of Number 1, assuming positive intent can lead any of the practioners down a path of growth and opportunity.
At the job I mentioned above, a very important part of our daily communication involved a system in which we were to implement the practice of providing “feedback” to each other. They cultivated a process of approaching a person with respect, probing to discover that person’s perspective, listening to understand, and then presenting a solution (or offering an alternate action). This system was used with both the internal and external customers, like I mentioned above. And it worked, co-workers opened up and learned from each other. Customers were inspired and happy to buy product.
Sometimes you might have someone that you feel is challenging your choices, or the actions that you’ve taken. It would be easy to get defensive and lash out at that person. But its very possible that they are curious of your perspective because they are human and always learning. And in a mentoring type of situation, I’ve assumed positive intent of my leadership, and opportunity was always around the corner for me to advance in position, and/or make better pay. Most of all it was about learning those life lessons and I am very grateful that those people challenged me!
3) I Build A Stronger Bond Of Trust
This is the true extension of Numbers 1 and 2 combined. Better trust, better communication, higher sales, better experiences.. It obviously all runs together if you can keep it on the positive side. I think my 3rd benefit can stand on its on with this:
As your team is developing that relationship with you (could just be your inner-circle of friends) you are saying to them that you have confidence in their abilities and choices. They may not always be the best choices, but as they feel more free to bounce those ideas off of you, they are actually massively building confidence and strength in the organization.
When you assume positive intent you let others know you have confidence in them, and people will often go to great lengths for someone who believes in them.
The musical projects that I’ve been involved in have groups of individuals with diverse talent and experiences that all members bring to the table. There have been some groups that have shot way up to the top quickly because the open nature of the communication was high, each member respected the other’s abilities and often looked for ways to inspire each other, and leadership choices were trusted because the group assumed positive intent of all members and associations. This lead to each musician going out of his way to promote for the group, or basically own the brand as his own to help the group find success.
Some of the projects that I’ve been a part of have failed when intentions are misplaced, trust is broken down, complacency sets in, and growth is hard to come by at that point. Defensiveness is high, and communication is strained. These are tough places to climb out of, but it just takes time to rebuild and for the group to make the choice to assume positive intent of each other.
When we choose to assume positive intent, we find ourselves more times than not, having better relationships, higher quality communication, stronger bonds of trust, and the opportunities for growth and rewards are plentiful.